Traveling by train is one of our favorite ways to get from place to place. Looking out the window with no responsibility to watch the road or follow directions gives us time to think and plan. We took full advantage of the outstanding European train system from Amsterdam to Belgium to Germany to Switzerland. It was in Zurich that we decided on our next step. There would be one more epic train ride, over the Alps to Milan, but then we decided that we really wanted to get behind to wheel and do a bit of driving. By this point we already knew we needed to be in Malta on a certain date so we needed to make a plan. After determining the least expensive way to Malta would be flying from Pisa, we set our route. After a few days in Milan, we had 4 days to enjoy the 300 or so kilometers to Pisa. Below you will find our route.
A Road Trip in Northern Italy
Our chariot for the next few days was a Fiat 500 L. We had, obviously, reserved the smallest cheapest car which was supposed to be the little brother of the L, the Fiat 500, but they upgraded us to the “L.” I was a bit disappointed we didn’t get the little guy, but in the end the 500 L was great and accomplished my goal of driving an Italian car in Italy. It was a diesel engine that has an automatic ignition kill when you arrive at a traffic light and come to a complete stop for about 2 seconds. Nerve-racking the first time when the car shut off unexpectedly, but this was easy to get used to and it saved us fuel; in Europe that means a lot!
We picked up the car from Hertz, just near the Milan Central Railway Station. After giving it a good check and winding down the many levels of the parking garage we were on the street, my first test passed and second awaited. Immediately after exiting the garage there was a delivery truck doubled parked making a delivery on a street barely wide enough for 2 cars to pass, since people were parking on both sides of the road. Test number two was passed as we squeezed through, cautiously of course, and made our way into traffic. I have to give major credit to my co-pilot Tamara. She successfully navigated us out of the hustle of central Milan and onto the Autostrade, the Italian highway.
Our destination was Recco, our first taste of an Italian seaside town. As we descended to Recco the roads were quite curvy and a bit more fun to drive. Oh, and did I mention we went through a few thousand tunnels on the way? Well, maybe not that many but there were tons as it seemed the roads were always built through the hillsides and not over or around them. As we got parked at Hotel Elena we were happy to stretch our legs and enjoy the views. The single best thing about this hotel was the view overlooking the sheltered bay and town. We spent the rest of the evening walking down by the water enjoying a beverage and some fresh seafood.
A note on finding lodging. We had a phone with data services, which we used both to navigate and book hotels on the fly. We’d only figure out where we wanted to stop on the same day we were driving, so we couldn’t book places ahead. Our trip was in mid-June, so before the real summer crowds began. This method worked fine for us, but might not be advisable in summer months!
Day Two: Recco to Lucca
In the morning we set out for Lucca, about 150 kilometers down the road. We decided to set up here for a couple of nights to explore the area. We chose to stay a bit north of Lucca at Castello Di Mammoli which is situated in the hills among the olive groves. It was truly picturesque, the classic Italian scene from the movies complete with rolling green hills striped with the endless rows of grapes in the terraced vineyards with a clear, blue sky above marked only by the occasional wispy cloud. Morning was spent with a leisurely breakfast of pastries and fruit, paired with a good, strong coffee. It was from this idyllic hillside that we explored the town of Lucca itself, some surrounding villages and also the famed Cinque Terre.
Side-Trip to Cinque Terre
For Cinque Terre we back-tracked a bit to La Spezia and took the train from the station to the northernmost of the five villages, Monterosso. It was here we got our first taste of the summer hordes. The centers of each town were packed with tourists, as were the trains between them by afternoon. We opted to hike from Monterosso to Vernazza and were rewarded with gorgeous views from above. While the area is justifiably popular, we decided we’d rather spend more time here off-season, and probably didn’t see a fraction of what Cinque Terre really has to offer.
Day 4: Lucca to Pisa
Leaving Lucca early, we had about half a day to get to Pisa before the car needed to be returned. We decided to take the long way and head over to Collodi, which is famous for Villa Garzoni Garden but also as the place where the author of Pinocchio, Carlo Lorenzini (better known by his pen name, Carlo Collodi) spent most of his childhood. Pinocchio has a park there but it seemed mostly for small children so we took the obligatory photo with his 50 foot tall statue. There are many other sculptures around town, and every Pinocchio-themed souvenir imaginable. The gardens of Villa Garzoni were absolutely amazing and worth the price of admission. Laid out in the mid-1600s, they are built into the hillside, each terrace level connected by symmetrical staircases. The water garden formed in the middle is adorned with endless sculptures and plantings.
Leaving Collodi, the ride though the countryside was all we’d hoped for from northern Tuscany. We strategically chose to return our car to a Hertz neighborhood location in Pisa for two reasons. One, we booked a hotel that was walking distance from the return. Two, we didn’t have to pay the extra fees usually associated with dropping cars at airport locations. With a 3 pm return time, of course we timed it to be a little bit early in case we got slowed down somewhere. Of course we didn’t, so when we showed up around 2:30 pm to drop the car we figured no problem. WRONG! The place was a ghost town. As we looked around and tried to make ourselves known in case someone was just in back where we couldn’t see them we came across a fellow and he explained that Hertz is closed until three because everyone had gone to lunch. Long story short, Tamara checked us into the hotel while I sat and waited to return the car. At 3:01 pm a man came whipping into the parking lot in his little red car and sure enough it was just the guy I needed to see! Car returned safe and sound, road trip complete.